Just a month ago, when the government introduced its new points-based immigration system, a lot of workers in the health, food production, and transport industries were considered unskilled workers, and unwelcome in post-Brexit Britain.
The basics of the proposed points-based system are clear. If a worker does not have a secondary school diploma, does not speak English, or their salary falls below £25,600, the door to the UK is closed for them. As it turns out, a lot of these “low-skilled” workers are now considered essential in the fight to manage, control and survive the coronavirus crisis. In the current circumstances, they have been put under additional strain.
The trend to bulk buy has put staff in supermarkets and grocery stores under significant pressure, with one employee writing that him and his co-workers have been working long days on their feet, anticipating the next few weeks to be “a nightmare,” and advising against panic buying. There is no reason to bulk buy: there are no food shortages anywhere in Europe, and supermarkets are staying open throughout nation-wide lockdowns as they are part of a (small) group of essential businesses which are exempt from the new rules.
But this may soon change. Agricultural workers from eastern Europe usually fill the majority of jobs on farms. The combination of Brexit caps on seasonal workers with strict coronavirus travel restrictions has slowed recruitment in agriculture, and the EU labour force is simply not coming through. UK farmers find themselves in a crisis and could face a shortage of 80,000 labourers this summer if the Government fails to intervene. These spots as fruit pickers need to be filled by British workers or fruit and vegetables will be left unpicked, and stocks could be put in danger.
Jobs now classified as “key workers” include NHS staff, social workers, the police and military, and those working in food distribution, energy, utilities and transportation. In other words, the people sustaining essential businesses are, by extent, deemed essential workers, as they help feed and care for a country in standstill.
Only a few weeks ago, Johnson’s government described these people and the jobs they filled as “low skilled”, stating that the government “intends to create a high wage, high-skill, high productivity economy.” If anything, the COVID-19 pandemic highlights the stark dissonance between this government’s policy on who is key in keeping the economy running and the truth on who is actually keeping the country together. It proves that “low-skilled” labour does not equate low-value labour. Recognising these workers as “key” or “essential” is a step towards recognising that they form the backbone of our society and without them, British civilisation would have already collapsed. The question remains whether this will be reflected in immigration policy when all of this blows over, and the pandemic finally dies down.
The EU Settlement Scheme statistics for Feb 2020 is out:
It includes 300 refusals. We’re told by the Home Office that the increase is mainly due to refusals for eligibility, not in criminality.
The two core reasons, the HO say, for the jump in refusals include:
1. Failing to provide eligibility evidence, either at the application stage or in reply to requests from the Settlement Resolution Centre
2. The non-EEA/Swiss family member failing to evidence their relationship to the EEA/Swiss national. This is could include failing to provide a marriage certificate through to not possessing the relevant document as a dependent relative.
In either scenario the HO say that they:
- have made every attempt to obtain the necessary evidence before refusing the application,
- decisions to refuse were not taken lightly, and
- ensured decisions were made at the appropriate decision making level
The number of refusals remain a significantly low number in comparison to the number of applications. And that many refusals were because of a drop in communications between both parties.
But it does raise the question if everyone who was contacted chose not to reply to request for further information or found it too complex to do so, and without access to the necessary support, they simply gave up. The HO were not able to give us this kind of granular data.
The HO assures applicants that they will pursue any necessary missing information or documentation. Or, if refused, encourages reapplications before the deadline.
A recent inspection report by the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration advises that there should be ‘clearer messaging' about the consequences of not responding within the time-frame indicated’. We hope that this message will become clearer in time.
These statistics will cause concern and there remain a lot of questions, but we should not panic. Yet.
The HO should contact all applicants for further information to resolve issues before it reaches the decision stage. We hope they take into account the Covid-19 advice gap.
These are times of uncertainty and while the primary concern is for public health, without further assurances from the UK Government, the vulnerability of being subject to immigration control can compound other worries during any crisis. The large-scale postponement, suspension and cancellation of social activity, including working and studying commitments, poses some important questions about satisfying the conditions of student visas.
UK Visas and Immigration (UKVI) requires all Tier 4 institutions (schools, colleges, higher education facilities and universities) to keep a record of sponsored Tier 4 students including their attendance levels. This is required in order to meet their sponsor duties towards the UKVI when sponsoring students to study with them.
There are consequences to students who are absent from studies or cannot complete their studies before their Tier 4 visa expires. If a student misses 10 consecutive expected points of contact, without the Tier 4 institution’s authorisation, the guidance normally requires them to withdraw their sponsorship of the student. If their sponsorship is withdrawn from the student, the student will have no longer be able to continue their studies in the UK.
What about absences due to Covid-19?
The current circumstances being exceptional, specific government guidance that addresses Covid-19, last updated on 27 February 2020 and since overshadowed by other announcements, has been issued (last updated on the 27th February) gives us some parameters to work with:
‘Some Tier 4 students or Tier 2/5 employees may be prevented from attending their studies or employment due to illness, the need to serve a period of quarantine or the inability to travel due to travel restrictions caused by coronavirus’.
This covers students who are taken ill by Covid-19, with absences authorised by the institution, as well as those whose movements have been restricted due to the threat. It goes on to say:
‘The Home Office recognises the current situation is exceptional and will not take any compliance action against students or employees who are unable to attend their studies/work due to the coronavirus outbreak, or against sponsors which authorise absences and continue to sponsor students or employees despite absences for this reason. The Home Office will keep this under review, especially if the length of absences mean a potential repeat of period of studies become necessary’.
This means Tier 4 institutions do not need to report students who are absent due to Covid-19, as long as those absences are authorised by them. This also means the institution should not withdraw their sponsorship of the student.
In light of the guidance and given that the situation is developing and changing constantly, it is advisable that students keep a record of any emails or letters sent by their institution, which confirm (in writing) the latest advice on, or authorisation of attendances, while Covid-19 is posing health and logistical issues to life in the UK.
What about institution closures or online studying?
The above guidance would apply if a Tier 4 institution decides to close completely or partially. This will be fine for short-term absences due to closures. Some Tier 4 institutions are deciding to close premises and transfer all teaching online – in these cases, they need to ensure they are confident the students are ‘attending’ online sessions in order to maintain their UKVI duties.
However, if the absences become so long that the student is unable to complete their studies before their visa expires then the institution will have no choice but to cancel their sponsorship. No one should be in this situation yet and we expect - given that this appears to be a long term situation - the above government Covid-19 guidance to be updated to inform us how they intend to deal with longer term absences.
We will update you when the government’s Covid-19 guidance is updated.
Post-Brexit, all EU, EEA and Swiss citizens (‘EU citizens’) and their non-EEA family members living in the UK are required to apply to the EU Settlement Scheme (‘EUSS’) in order to continue living legally in the UK after 30 June 2021. People who are currently living abroad, but who have previously lived in the UK for five years, may also apply be eligible for settled status.
The status of EU citizens in the UK who fail to apply to the EUSS before the deadline is currently uncertain. As such, an estimate of the number of people who need to apply would be helpful to ensure that the affected population have properly secured their rights before the deadline, so that no one is left in limbo. This is easier said than done as there is no centralised record of the number of EU citizens living in the UK, so will we ever know the true number?
The Home Office has been regularly releasing statistics on the number of applications the EUSS has received. The latest figures for January 2020 showed that:
- A total of 3.1 million applications were received by 31 January 2020
- 2.7 million applications were concluded by 31 January 2020, of which 58% were granted settled status and 41% were granted pre-settled status
- 351,800 applications were received in January 2020
At first glance, the task of estimating the number of people who still need to apply to the EUSS seems a simple exercise in comparing the number of EU citizens living in the UK to the number of applications the Home Office has received. According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), an estimated 3.4 million EU citizens are resident in the UK.
However, the ONS has recently released a note explaining the pitfalls of applying their population estimate to the EUSS application data, advising that the two sets of data should not be directly compared.
Importantly, estimates of EU citizens living in the UK do not include eligible non-EU family members, nor does the estimate include eligible citizens who are not currently resident in the UK. The ONS statistic is also based on data from the Annual Population Survey, which does not survey people living in communal establishments such as care homes, hostels and halls of residence, people who are absent from a household for more than six months, or people studying in the UK on a shorter-term basis. The exclusion of these people suggests that the actual number of people eligible under the EUSS will be larger than the ONS estimate. Therefore, relying on the ONS estimate risks underestimating the number of people affected.
Conversely, there are people who are included in ONS population estimate who do not need to apply for the EUSS, which further complicates the numbers, for example, people with indefinite leave to enter or remain in the UK and people exempt from immigration control such as foreign diplomats. The ONS estimate is also intention-blind; there are EU citizens who are currently resident in the UK for a range of reasons, and some of them may not intend to settle here on a permanent basis, so will never apply under the EUSS.
Moreover the statistics are gathered using different methodologies. Home Office statistics count the actual number of applications made. Some of these applications will have been made by people living outside the UK, and other people will have made more than one application, for instance if they were initially granted pre-settled status and have applied again for settled status. The ONS statistic is an estimate based on a sample survey, so is inevitably more uncertain.
The inaccuracy of comparing these figures can be shown by the fact that the Home Office has already received 156,600 applications from Bulgarian citizens, whereas the ONS estimates only 109,000 Bulgarians are currently resident in the UK. This cannot be taken to mean that every Bulgarian in the UK has already applied to the EUSS.
These difficulties point to the caution needed when estimating the number of people eligible to apply for the EUSS. The number of applications received cannot be accurately compared to estimates of resident EU nationals to calculate the number of people who should apply under the EUSS. Ultimately, the true numbers of eligible citizens may never be known and the EUSS will be with us for many years after the deadline.
On 1 February 2020, João Vale de Almeida, a Portuguese diplomat, took office in the role that was created for him. There had never been an EU ambassador to the UK, because there was no need for one. After Brexit Day, this all changed. The EU has delegations in all countries that are not members of the bloc, such as Turkey and Canada; the UK is no (longer) different. As such, Vale de Almeida now sits in his rebranded West London office, which used to be the home of the EU Representation in the UK.
Until last year, he was EU ambassador to the United Nations in New York, in addition to having served as ambassador to the United States between 2010 and 2015. During his time in Washington, he helped launch trade talks between the EU and the US, and gained significant recognition for his achievements as a skillful and experienced diplomat.
Similarly to Boris Johnson, Vale de Almeida started his career as a journalist. It comes as no surprise, then, that he and Mr. Johnson have known each other since before they both moved to politics, when Mr. Johnson was a journalist for the Daily Telegraph. His link with the PM is another reason why it is him, and not anyone else, who has been put in charge of the monumental task as ambassador: to ensure the withdrawal agreement runs smoothly, and both parties hold up their end of the bargain.
The UK is to set up an independent monitoring authority to oversee EU citizens’ rights by 1 January 2021, the day the transitional period after Brexit ends. It will monitor an array of issues, including the EU Settlement Scheme, social welfare and employment rights. Vale de Almeida’s office will be complementing this service. He acknowledged that it is Brussels’ and the UK’s joint responsibility to ensure that all EU citizens obtain status under the Settlement Scheme (EUSS), and plans to increase the outreach tools in order to reach “deeper into the British society” to ensure everyone knows their rights.
At Seraphus, we have first-hand experience with these groups of vulnerable people, as we have been delivering workshops and information sessions about the EUSS to EU citizens across the country since the Home Office rolled out the Scheme in 2019. Christopher Desira, Seraphus’ director and founding solicitor, explains: “There are so many barriers for people to apply to the EU Settlement Scheme. It could be language, or education. It could be physical or mental health issues, dependency issues, street homelessness, living in precarious residence accommodation, or a combination of a number of those.
For example, we gave a workshop to an East Timorese community in Northern Ireland. These are East Timorese citizens who have acquired Portuguese nationality. Many of them do not speak English, or at least not very well. They do not get the connection between Brexit and their free movements rights ending; they just know now that their Portuguese passport means they can live and work anywhere in the UK. They don’t know or understand that Brexit affects that. They were lucky that someone in their community who made an effort to bring all these people together in a room, invite us to attend, and function as an interpreter. He is a real community champion. If it was not for that person, that community would have no knowledge of the scheme whatsoever.”
Needless to say, the more issues an individual has, the harder it is to reach them and the harder it will be to ensure those people apply without any legal assistance. This is where many external organisations, ranging from charities such as the3million or Settled, to law firms such as Seraphus, come in to reach more people in meaningful ways. Vale de Almeida has said he will specifically help vulnerable EU nationals, such as Roma people, the elderly, prisoners, or people with little knowledge of English, to stay in Britain. We hope to make good on his promise.